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Chapter 8: Interest Groups and the Media

  1. Interest Groups
      Interest groups organize to pursue a common interest by applying pressure on the political process. There are numerous groups in America, as Alex de Tocqueville noted in 1835. Interest groups are usually more tightly organized than political parties. They are financed by contributions or by dues-paying members.
    1. Types of Interest Groups. The most important and widespread type of association is based on common economic interests. Business groups (Chamber of Commerce, NAM), including corporations, are interested in profits and supporting a system that maintains them; professional associations (teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc.), labor unions (AFL-CIO), and agricultural lobbies are among the most powerful groups seeking protection and favors. In addition, there are religious, racial, environmental, public interest, and political groups all seeking to influence government policies.
    2. Lobbying. Interest groups or individuals put pressure on the government to act in their favor. The typical lobby is a professional staff of experienced people who provide information to congressional committees and the bureaucracy. These lobbyists include former members of Congress or the executive branch. Indirect lobbying (used by the NRA) may involve campaigns to enlist public recognition and support (grassroots campaigns) and attempts to influence other interest groups for their cause. In some cases groups will form a coalition to lobby for one specific goal (e.g., free trade). Direct lobbying usually takes place in congressional committees and executive bureaucracies. Lobbyists, bureaucrats, and congressional committees comprise the so called Iron Triangle.
    3. Campaign Contributions and PACs. The most controversial aspects of lobbying relate to campaigns and elections. Interest groups can support friendly candidates or work to defeat candidates they oppose. Political action committees (PACs) are set up by private groups in order to influence elections. (The earliest PAC, created in 1955, was the AFL-CIO's COPE.) Since the campaign reforms of the mid-1970s put limits on individual donations, the numbers of PACs have mushroomed. As a result, election funds from special interests, especially business groups, have grown enormously, the exact opposite intention of the reforms. Money does buy access, the right to talk to a legislator. Most recent attempts at new reforms haven't offered enough enticements to both "in" and "out" politicians to secure passage. Various attempts to reform PACs are usually opposed by one party who feels it would benefit the other party.
    4. Group Interests and the Public Interest. The growth in numbers and influence of interest groups is unarguable. The failure of reforms is equally evident. As the number of interest groups multiplied, the result is hyperpluralism-too many groups making too many demands on government. These criticisms are overstated. "Special interest" do not dominate the entire game. They are countered by politicians, other groups, and the media who limit their interest group power and ensure that the results of the political competition remain unpredictable.
  2. The Media
    1. What Are the Media? Media includes those means of communication that permit messages to be made public. Television dominates the mass media and is in turn dominated by the three major networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC. These networks function as agencies that produce and sell programs with advertising to their affiliates (each network had over 200). In recent years, the three networks have been challenged by Fox and various cable stations. Cable-only stations such as CNN and C-SPAN have also become important. New technologies are causing the distinctions between television, computers, and telephones to be blurred. For example, the Internet provides endless sources of information and entertainment. Newspapers, though more varied, have shown a rapid decline in number and competitiveness in this country. At the turn of the century, there were 2,226 daily papers in the United States. By 1997, there were only 1,516. In 1920, there were 700 cities with competing newspapers. Today there are only 13.
    2. What Do the Media Do? The media provide three major types of messages-news reports, entertainment programs, and advertising. In news reports, the media selectively supply accounts of the most important events and issues. The most important function the media perform is agenda-setting-putting together an agenda of national priorities. Entertainment programs subtly give images of "normal" behavior and turn political conflicts into personal problems. Advertising also presents images of material well-being presumed to be within the reach of most people.
  3. Media and the Marketplaces of Ideas
    1. The Media and Free Speech. Although the framers of the Constitution saw communications media as part of a free market of varied ideas, recent trends have countered this goal. Profitability has led to a decline in the number of competing newspapers, the increase in media "chains," and the control of TV and radio by a small number of corporations (ABC-Capital Cities was acquired by Disney). More than 80 percent of the nation's newspapers are owned by chains, and only three corporations own most of the nation's 11,000 magazines. The dependence on advertising has led the media to avoid controversy so as not to antagonize either consumers or advertisers. While the quantity of political information has certainly increased, the need for profitability and to provide entertainment has probably led to a decline in serious discussions of issues.
    2. The Media and the Government. These influence one another in various ways.
      1. The Federal Communication Commission regulates TV and radio.
      2. The media are both opportunity and adversary for campaigning politicians. Media advertising has accounted for 60 percent of campaign money in presidential races. Candidates also are fond of staging "newsworthy events"-pseudoevents-such as the Clinton-Gore bus tours of 1992.
      3. Informal pressure by political leaders through news management and promoting their favorable image to the public is widespread. Presidents try to get on the good side of the media by giving favored reporters exclusive "leaks" of information. Presidents now have large staffs of media experts and speech writers to perfect their images. Bill Clinton's attempts at good relations with the press came to an end when the media became fixated on covering the President's affair with a young intern.
    3. The Media and the Public. The media have a powerful influence on the political attitudes and actions of Americans. The media has the power to "define alternatives." While they may check the activities of those in power, in the main they reflect and enhance the influence of the most powerful players in the political game.
  4. Case Study: Candidate: A Day in the Life…
    1. Morning. She is running for the Senate. Her typically early morning is dedicated to two good-sized towns that she hopes will provide exposure, personal contact, and money to a candidate whose advisers still disagree over whether she should carry a purse on the campaign trail. She meets local teachers for breakfast, parries a reporter's question about her children, and has a good press conference. She does two press conferences a day, each with a new position paper, scheduled with hopes for space in the morning or evening papers or the big prize, evening TV news.
    2. Afternoon. She's late to lunch at a senior citizens' center (the volunteer college driver got lost) and she hurries back to her motel to ask for more money from two well-off contributors to keep several effective ads on the air as the campaign winds down. More phone calls for more money are followed by filming of a TV spot-45 seconds on the screen, two grueling hours to film. Then it's off to two "coffees" given by supporters.
    3. Evening. She and her advisors discuss fine-tuning her aggressive attacks on her opponent, which are cutting into his lead but raising her "negatives." She postpones a decision to take advantage of her opponent's son's activities-which may be unsavory-as a campaign issue, and goes to a TV debate, the last event of the day. Having scored well on her opponent in the debate, she calls her husband and children at home for support and leaves word for another 5 a.m. wakeup call.
    4. Analysis. Today's candidate spends more time on media exposure and fundraising than personal contact with voters; paradoxically, the core value that appeals to news media and to potential givers is personal contact.

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